This is the fifth and final post in a five-part series that explores how the traditional “American Dream” does not fit today’s world. The rest of the series will discuss what once constituted success and whether these sought-after milestones should be left alone, tweaked, or changed altogether. Read the first four articles here: “The American Dream: How Has the Definition Changed Over the Years?,” “The American Dream: Are Traditional Values and Beliefs Helpful or Harmful Today?,” “The American Dream: Your Well-Paying 9-5 Job Will Build You Wealth—Reality or Myth?,” and “The American Dream: The Family, the House, the Car—Could It Cost Us Financial Stability?“
In the last four posts of the series, we looked at the current definition of the American Dream and what was wrong with the first six steps. Here we will evaluate the remaining four.
But first, a quick reminder of all 10 steps:
- Go to high school and get good grades.
- Go to college and get good grades (while probably taking out student loans).
- Get a good job.
- Continue to spend more as one makes more.
- Get married and have 2.3 kids and a dog.
- Buy the nicest house and car one can afford (financing both).
- Work for 40+ years to support one’s family.
- Retire at age 65.
- Enjoy the good life.
- Leave your children a nice inheritance when you die.
What’s Wrong With the Traditional Version of the “American Dream”?
Step 7: Work for 40+ years to support one’s family, and Step 8: Retire at age 65.
As those of us on the path to early retirement know, step four (“Continue to spend more as one makes more.”) and step six (“Buy the nicest house and car one can afford.”) lead us right to step seven—handcuffed and shackled.
“The problem with [the American Dream] is that the person following it will be forced to work for wage income for the better part of his day, during the best part of his week, throughout the best years of his life. At best, he will retire with a modest amount of wealth, late in life, and be forced to hope it’s enough to last.” —From Set for Life by Scott Trench
I have not done an official study on this, but I would guess that most Americans, if given a choice, would rather have to work less than 40 years of their life than to work 40 years or more—just a shot in the dark.
But we usually don’t have a choice if we follow steps four and six. Or what’s even worse is if we don’t even realize that leaving our job before 65 is an option.
As we talked about before, most Americans spend everything they earn. If their monthly paycheck is $3,000, then they are spending close to or even more than $3,000 each month. This means they are saving nothing, which leads to “living paycheck to paycheck.” They need that $3,000 each month to pay rent, buy food, make a car payment, and so on.
They’re trapped. They can’t go without a paycheck for more than a week or two without missing one of their payments. If they were to quit their job and start a new one, the risk would be significant.
What if they can’t find a new job? What if they had one lined up, but it falls through or they don’t like it as much as they hoped? What if the new boss decides there is only a part-time position now and not a full-time job?
Too risky. So, the only option is to stay put and keep the paychecks coming in so the bills can be paid. Trapped.
What I love about BiggerPockets and the FI (financial independence) community is that we are all advocating for changing step seven. We are doing this even if our advocacy simply consists of being a member and consuming content.
We are part of a movement and hold the belief that life does not have to follow step seven. Our version of the American Dream will be and is different than many others. Early retirement is real and attainable.
Step 9: Enjoy the good life.
The essence of this step is still the goal of most who pursue the American Dream. We “dream” of the day when we can stop the 9 to 5 grind and just enjoy life.
“Oh, how I long for the day when I can finally sleep in, travel, spend more time with family and friends, and golf to my heart’s content,” we say to ourselves.
As BiggerPockets followers, we know that this “good life” is real, and we want it sooner rather than later. We want to make the best financial decisions we can now to set ourselves up for early financial freedom. Those not in the “know” will continue to work the normal span of 40 years until they reach retirement age, where Social Security and retirement account benefits kick in.
But who wants to wait until they’re 65 to travel and play golf? What if we want that free time now to start a new business, check off a bucket list item, or volunteer on a service trip? There’s no time like the present—unless, that is, we are trapped in the cycle of every penny of every paycheck going toward monthly bills.
So, we learn about passive income. We learn about real estate investing. We learn about low-cost index fund investing over the long-term. We make cuts to our spending. We find new ways to be frugal. And we persist even when those around us tempt our long-term goals.
If you hang around the BiggerPockets community long enough, you will read story after story of FI pursuers reaching that financial freedom marker earlier and earlier in life. Gone are the days where we have to work well into our golden years. We are setting the new benchmark at 40 or 30 or even 25 years old.
Good life, here we come!
Step 10: Leave your children a nice inheritance when you die.
First off, I need to state my disclaimer: I am not an expert on estate tax law or taxes on any kind of inheritance. Nor do I want to be.
But I do suspect that most who are lucky enough to leave their children an inheritance of some kind do so as cash or cash equivalents, along with the equity in their primary residence. Other than the house, the inheritance may consist of an estate fund. It may include stocks. It may include leftover 401(k) or IRA equity. Or it could include some other kind of similar asset.
I am a bit ignorant when it comes to the pros and cons of these options. But I do know that leaving a real estate investment portfolio to your children is generally a much better gift than the former alternatives.
If you could leave a few cash-flowing, paid-off rental properties to your children, along with the knowledge of how to manage those assets, your children could be set for life. The downside to the earlier options of cash, stocks, estate funds, and leftover retirement account assets is that they are not passive. (Other than some possible dividend returns.)
Rental properties, on the other hand, will continue to pay your children monthly disbursements in perpetuity. And if you passed on the knowledge of real estate investing and property management skills, they can continue to grow the gifted portfolio to even greater levels.
So, do your children a favor. Leave them that nice inheritance and include whatever kind of assets you would like. But make sure some of them have a mailing address on the front door.
We’re done! We’ve analyzed, explored, and critiqued the American Dream from top to bottom. We’ve looked at the historic definitions and the changes over the years. We’ve taken into account the modern needs of today’s worker. And we’ve shot some big ass holes in many of the tried-and-true beliefs that the American Dream encapsulates.
Here are some brief takeaways from the series:
- Most of the underlying values of the American Dream, such as hard work and perseverance, are still alive and well.
- The American Dream is not broken. It still works just fine.
- There are, however, variations to the standard American Dream route that are vast improvements over the longstanding path more often traveled.
- For those who choose to veer off the beaten path and take some calculated risks, the rewards are bountiful.
A huge congratulations to you if you’ve made it through all five articles in the series! I appreciate all of the comments and will continue to read every one.
Best of luck to you with whichever American Dream definition and direction you follow.
What’s your personal definition of the American Dream? Where are you on the path toward achieving it?
Share in the comment section below.